It’s hard to look back at the last year of WWE and not feel happy for AJ Styles. A man who for years plied his trade down in Florida for Dixie Carter and TNA; his was a career that was more deserving of a bigger stage. As the years ticked by, the prospect of him rolling up in WWE seemed to diminish – age works against even the best of wrestlers. Yet in 2016, the stars aligned and wrestling fans were given one of the greatest freshman years within the WWE ever witnessed. From his entry into the Royal Rumble, through to capturing the WWE World Championship from Dean Ambrose – AJ Styles has had an amazing first year in WWE an re-written the rules in the process.
It’s hard to remember now but there was a time when wrestling fans were hugely skeptical of AJ Styles joining WWE. After so many years with TNA Wrestling down in Florida, all signs pointed to a potential mess. WWE has a poor track record of converting TNA’s top stars into WWE Main Eventers, and Styles was as TNA as they came. His star was not theirs and WWE doesn’t like it when indie darlings show up on their doorstep expecting the red carpet treatment. It also doesn’t help that AJ Styles is very much in the twilight of his career. Guys like Daniel Bryan and CM Punk had the advantage of time on their side, it took years for the pair to make their way to the top of the WWE roster, Even then this wasn’t a guarantee of success in the WWE Machine. For the few who scaled the ladder, many others fell by the wayside (anyone remember Kaval?).
Yet from a logical standpoint, it made sense for Styles to join WWE. After leaving TNA over a contract dispute in 2014, AJ lit up the Japanese wrestling scene with his in-ring work. Fans couldn’t get enough and thanks to the momentum of the Bullet Club in New Japan Pro Wrestling – his star was only ever elevating. It was only a matter of time before WWE came calling again, a final attempt to bag the one Superstar who had forever illuded them. That finally came to pass in early 2016 – when Styles abruptly abandoned a return to TNA in order to head north.
Rumors and speculation swirled wildly in those first few weeks that Styles was WWE-bound. Yet despite this, fans had their concerns. With Wrestlemania season looming and AJ Styles a huge unknown quantity within the WWE Universe, how would the company handle his arrival? Would they make a huge deal about him arriving, or would he be yet another face that WWE pushed to NXT and made to wait for his chance to break into the main roster?
Turns out we didn’t have to wait long to find out the answer, as Styles made his entrance in the number 3 slot of the Royal Rumble match. It was a huge moment and thanks to some expert commentary from Michael Cole, who wasn’t a blithering idiot for once, WWE fans were given all the information they needed within that first two minutes. Everything said was designed to let fans know that this guy was a huge deal – and WWE fans should take notice. The fact that they also sent him conveniently into the waiting arms of Roman Reigns, the WWE World Heavyweight Champion at the time, helped cement his star. AJ Styles was here and he was here to make an impact.
This isn’t to say AJ Styles was ready for the main event out the gate. His early WWE run was punctuated with some awkward promo work; a hangover from his TNA run. Styles has never been a hugely impressive figure on the microphone and in the immediate aftermath of the Royal Rumble, his promo work was intentionally kept to a minimum. This is why sticking him into feuds with the likes of Miz and Jericho was a genius move; two men who know how to work a microphone and could get AJ Styles over without damaging him. As 2016 ticked on, his mic-skills have come on leaps and bounds. He’s no longer a stuttering shambles but a confident and hugely impressive figure, going to-to-toe with John Cena in some firey exchanges over on Smackdown Live. Say what you want about WWE’s machine but it’s helped AJ Styles to seamlessly climb the ladder in WWE’s main event picture.
This also doesn’t excuse some hugely awkward booking during those first few months. Styles losing at Wrestlemania 32 to Chris Jericho was a baffling decision that was almost instantly forgotten about. AJ’s defeat was quietly pushed into the background as Styles was shuttled into a post-Wrestlemania Championship feud with Roman Reigns. It made no sense in April and now we’re in 2017, it makes even less sense why they didn’t just give AJ the Wrestlemania win.
On top of this, his booking during that Roman Reigns feud was something of a mixed bag. If WWE gets praise for raising Styles to the main event scene, they lose those points when it comes to Gallows and Anderson. The Club was a terribly booked, awkwardly positioned group that squandered their advantage and fell to one of the worst booked ideas in 2016 – Roman Reigns bloodline. After this whole fiasco, WWE opted to remove Styles from Gallows and Anderson – who were in a terminal decline after the whole mess (Something they wouldn’t break out of for many months). Styles managed to shake off that mess and even managed to come out stronger – all thanks to an amazing feud with John Cena.
The quality of their matches and the sheer momentum that the pair generated was box-office gold. While fans were getting bored with the main event picture in WWE, these two guys were going out at pay per views and stealing the show. Heck, their Summerslam match ranks highly among my personal matches of the year. The decision to draft them both to Smackdown kept that momentum going and gave the Blue Brand some much-needed early momentum. It also paved the way for Styles to move onto the WWE World Heavyweight Championship again – now in possession of Dean Ambrose.
Dean Ambrose was white-hot over the early Summer and captured the WWE World Heavyweight Championship should have been his defining moment. Yet fans were turning quickly on him, his on-screen antics becoming tedious to the wider fan base. An awkward Stone Cold Steve Austin Podcast didn’t help things and as summer was coming to a close, WWE realized they needed to get the belt off him. Thankfully Styles was now a full-on heel and primed to take the advantage of this situation. Him capturing the WWE World Championship lent legitimacy to Smackdown’s main event scene. His work was exciting and fans couldn’t get enough of it.
As we head into 2017, I’m curious just where AJ Styles is heading. I can’t remember a man coming in and making such a huge impact. His rise to the top of Smackdown Live has proven to be exciting, thrilling and well-deserved. Even if he loses the Championship this Sunday, fans want to see more of him. The question is, can WWE keep his momentum going as we head into Wrestlemania and beyond?
Can the phenomenal one have a phenomenal second year?